Clipper Fan Along for Ride of His Life
Carl Cook is not a typical Clipper season-ticket holder.
For one thing, he’s homeless.
For another, he owns no car.
Nor is he licensed to drive.
But Cook, 46, nevertheless is unflagging in his support of the Clippers, who return to Staples Center tonight for Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series against the Phoenix Suns. Putting mettle to pedal, he rides a bicycle to the arena from his home base in Marina del Rey, if not farther, game after game after game.
While other season-seat subscribers might sip vintage wine, knock back imported beer or nosh crudites before games, Cook chokes down exhaust.
Atop a blue-and-white, one-speed Trek Classic beach cruiser, a wire basket in front crammed with Clipper gear, he navigates traffic-clogged Mid-City streets as he makes his way downtown during rush hour, then retraces his tire tracks back to the marina late at night.
Round trip, depending on where he starts: 28 to 36 miles.
No wonder Sterling Dortch, a Clipper account executive who deals most directly with Cook, described him as “probably our most unique fan.”
Certainly he is among the few who spend about one-third of their incomes on tickets to basketball games. Cook, who bunks down most nights on a friend’s sailboat or in a nearby laundromat, said he makes $30 to $40 a job detailing cars near Los Angeles International Airport and $10 an hour as an attendant at a Manhattan Beach carwash.
His annual income, he said, is probably less than $10,000.
And yet he spent about $3,300 on tickets this season, sitting floor level near the tunnel where the Clippers make their entrance.
“He just eats, sleeps, lives Clippers,” said the middle of his three sisters, Jody Cook of Oceanside. “Every time he comes to visit, he’s always in a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, something Clipper-related. And whenever I talk to him, during the season or not, he talks about the Clippers.
“I’ve never seen anything like him, especially to hang in there with that team, because they’ve not been a very successful team. ...
“It’s odd, but it’s his life.”
Said Cook: “They bring me happiness.”
It was nearly midnight, a little more than an hour after the Clippers had wrapped up a series-clinching, history-making playoff victory over the Denver Nuggets, when Cook pedaled across Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.
A Clipper beanie pulled low over his head to ward off the late-night chill, he wore a white Corey Maggette jersey, blue Clipper sweats and basketball shoes.
A motorist rolled down his window and shouted, “Go, Clippers!”
Said Cook, laughing: “They’re jumping on the bandwagon.”
Cook was on board years ago, dating back to the late 1980s.
“You couldn’t pick an ultimate Clipper fan, other than him,” said Pat Sullivan, a former employer and longtime friend who lets Cook stay in his laundromat some nights. “He lives and breathes them, wears their clothes, knows their stats.”
Cycling to games, Sullivan said, “shows you his devotion.”
A few seasons ago, that devotion nearly cost him his life.
Crossing the intersection of Venice Boulevard and Normandie Avenue while riding home from a game one night, Cook was struck by a motorist and sent sprawling, the hit-and-run driver speeding from the scene.
Cook regained consciousness a week later but couldn’t remember the incident. He suffered a concussion and had minor scrapes and bruises, he said. But what concerned him most was that his Lamar Odom jersey had been torn and ruined.
“And it was a game-worn jersey,” he said. “They’re like gold.”
Over protests by family and friends, Cook soon resumed making the one-hour rides to and from games, new gear on his back but no protection on his head. He won’t wear a helmet, even though the Clippers offered to buy him one.
“He’s pretty stubborn about that,” said Sullivan. “I don’t think he should be riding a bike to the games anyway. You’re taking your life in your hands when you’re out there on the street.”
But Cook said he has run into few problems, other than a flat tire last Thanksgiving eve and a homeless man throwing things at him.
A Laker fan?
“Probably a bum I kicked out of the laundromat,” Cook said.
A recovering alcoholic who said he has been sober since July 1989, Cook has never had a driver’s license. He took a bus to games at the Sports Arena when the Clippers played there, he said, but now he’d rather ride his bicycle, rain or shine.
“He’s pretty much just a free spirit,” his sister Jody said.
As much as he enjoys the games and pulling for the Clippers, Cook said getting there and back is half the fun:
“Oh, yeah. It’s a little bit of an adventure.”
There is a childlike quality to the gentle, guileless Cook.
In his dreams, he does not shape the Clipper roster a la General Manager Elgin Baylor, nor make strategic adjustments like Coach Mike Dunleavy. He does not block shots in the manner of Elton Brand, nor blow past defenders like Maggette.
He dreams of schlepping towels, washing uniforms and hauling gear alongside Pete Serrano, the Clippers’ longtime equipment manager.
“They wouldn’t even have to pay me,” he said. “I would just do it.”
He remained loyal to the Clippers through decades of disappointment, even buying a membership at the El Segundo health club where they practice.
At the Sports Arena, the Clippers often gave him tickets to their sparsely attended games. That changed when they moved to Staples Center before the 1999-2000 season and fan interest grew. Cook, undeterred, said he sold his most valuable possession, a $6,400 sailboat, to help pay for season tickets.
The new owner still lets him sleep on the boat most nights and Cook takes jobs here and there, scraping together what money he can to fuel his passion.
Said Sullivan, his former employer: “He leads a simple life, by his choosing, but he’s always done whatever he’s needed to do to afford his Clipper seats.”
When the Clippers clinched over the Nuggets -- the team’s only playoff series victory since it moved here in 1984 -- his eyes welled with joy.
“They’re like a family to me,” he said. “They’ve always brought me something. It’s like, I’ll be walking down the street and somebody will say, ‘I saw you at a Clippers game.’ It makes me proud. I can hold my head up. Even if they lose, I get a lot of enjoyment out of going to the games.
“It’s worth the ride.”